You may not know this about me, but I’m a cradle Episcopalian. My wife and I have been attending Grace Community for over 20 years, and I’m an elder in that church, but I was born and bred a card-carrying member of the Church of England in America. Christmas Eve services still bring back memories of the smell of incense and my little acolyte robes. Sometimes I really miss the liturgy, the connection to my forefathers (and mothers) in the faith, of hundreds of years of deep, spiritual tradition.
It hasn’t always been that way. When I was in my 20s, like many people in their 20s, I didn’t want any part of liturgical practice, of seasons and the Church calendar. “Get rid of that old, dead religion”, I’d think. “It’s not about religion; it’s about a relationship with Jesus!” So, I’d engage gloriously in what Matt Chandler’s mom called “wall singing,” singing modern-day worship songs projected on a wall, rejoicing in the fact that I was free at last.
…and, as I got older, like so many things about my parents, their practices and their faith began to take shape and root in my own life, to make so much more sense, to seem so much wiser. I realized that the Church didn’t establish seasons and practices like Lent to put people under the bondage of dead religion, but to free their souls’ death grip on this world.
The beauty of fasting, of denial, as a form of preparation and spiritual growth, is more ancient than the Church itself. In denying ourselves, we remember that we are exiles; that while this world has pleasures that come from the good hand of God, this world is not our home. We discipline our bodies, our minds, and our spirits to enjoy those things, but not to become too attached to them, not to let them rule over us.
I find that when I’m fasting, I’m more raw, the Holy Spirit more at the surface of who I am. I find that those things that bring joy to the Lord, or that bring Him grief, more often bring me to tears. I find myself becoming more frustrated with the things that anger God, but with the right kind of anger: an anger that leads not to a desire for vanquishing or vengeance, but one that leads to prayers for repentance, redemption, and restoration in the hearts of the subjects of my anger. In short, I find myself closer to the heart of God, that place where I desperately long to be.
When I deny myself, the pangs and longings remind me how weak I truly am, how little control I have over the world around me, how much I need the grace that only God can give. I find myself pacing back and forth in front of that cabinet where I know the dark chocolate lurks, battling with my cravings, marveling at my inability to resist even this little thing in my own strength. Denial brings me to a state of humility, laying myself bare before the Lord, drawing upon His strength to sustain me, the only thing that can. Once again, He uses this oh-so-minor struggle to bring about an oh-so-eternal, internal strength. Eventually, the cravings pass, and before long, they lose their depth of power over me. They help me realize, “What else is there that I hate in my life that, if I surrender it to the Holy Spirit, can be likewise put to death?” (Not that a little chocolate every now and then can’t be a great thing!)
We don’t really think like that very much, do we? Most of the time, we impulse-buy. We get it because we want it, or think we do. One-click shopping. Drive thru. We don’t really even have to think about it or consider it. We have it in our hands, our bellies, or our minds before we really finish thinking through whether it’s even something we should have, whether it’s good for us. And, we give our kids everything, on demand, denying them the joy and discipline of delayed gratification, not really teaching and modeling for them that such a thing even exists.
Lent is upon us. It started last week. It’s okay if you’re late; there’s no judgment. Pray about a limited fast, coupled with prayer. Maybe one day a week, no breakfast or lunch. Or, give up sweets. Or coffee. Or TV. Or, whatever that thing is that you don’t think you can live without. Every time the craving comes to you, remember your dependence on the Lord, that these cravings are an attachment to this world, and that your Lord came to free you from that attachment, so that you could take your rightful place as future co-ruler of the world, redeemed by Christ’s blood, no longer enslaved to the world. Thank Him for that, and ask Him to give you His heart: to think what He thinks, feel what He feels, be sad about what makes Him sad, and angry about what makes Him angry. Do it as a family, and have your kids join you (Like, giving up their smart phones for three hours a night at home? Could it ever be?) Help them understand the difference between disciplining one’s heart as a way to love Jesus more, and engaging in an empty act of self-righteousness in order to manipulate God into doing what you want. There is a difference, you know? Now’s a great time for them to learn that difference.
There’s beauty in denial, grace in the spiritual disciplines. Beauty and grace in denial is the great gift of Lent, the beautiful legacy that my parents shared with me, even if I was way too brilliant as a 20-year-old to recognize it at the time.